[Marxism] Doug Henwood on the Nation's endorsement of Obama

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Oct 18 12:06:18 MDT 2012

Why Should the Left Support Obama?
Doug Henwood | October 17, 2012

As I paged through this magazine’s recent presidential endorsement 
issue, I searched vainly for the “plague on both their houses” point of 
view. Though many Obama fans are happy to cite the spirit of the Occupy 
movement, they don’t want any part of the skepticism about electoral 
politics that many Occupiers express. Vote Green, vote Socialist 
Workers, don’t vote at all—there was no trace of those venerable 
positions in these pages.

I’m not sure that I’d embrace any of those positions myself. But I wish, 
just once, an endorsement of a Democratic presidential candidate coming 
from the left would mull over some serious structural issues that are at 

There are certain eternally recurrent features of these endorsement 
editorials, and they are depressing. The shortcomings of this year’s 
Democrat are acknowledged, only to be dismissed, because this is always 
the most important election since 1932, or maybe 1860. If the Democrats 
lose, brownshirts will move into the Oval Office. It will be repression 
and immiseration at home and aggressive war abroad. Sure, there will be 
some repression, immiseration and war even if the Dem wins, but see 
above re dismissal of shortcomings.

The persistence of the pattern is no exaggeration. Here’s something from 
a 1967 essay by Hal Draper on the imminent 1968 election: “Every time 
the liberal labor left has made noises about its dissatisfaction with 
what Washington was trickling through, all the Democrats had to do was 
bring out the bogy of the Republican right. The lib-labs would then 
swoon, crying ‘The fascists are coming!’ and vote for the Lesser Evil.”

And what is the consequence of that swoon? Draper’s answer: “the 
Democrats have learned well that they have the lib-lab vote in their 
back pocket, and that therefore the forces to be appeased are those 
forces to the right.” Almost every editorial urging a vote for this 
year’s Dem will lament the rightward move of our politics without ever 
considering the contribution of such calls to the process.

Back in 2008, I recall a group of self-styled Progressives for Obama 
resolving to hold his “feet to the fire” should he drift rightward in 
office. That amazed me, considering that none of them would ever 
consider withholding a vote and/or urging others to do so. In an 
election likely to turn on a couple of percentage points, the threat of 
exit could have some force. But it’s hard to imagine it ever being 
exercised—because of the brownshirts in the wings.

Another recurrent feature of the genre: a lament over the Democrats’ 
lack of spine, which is often treated as a curable condition. But in 
fact the invertebrate status is a symptom of the party’s fundamental 
contradiction: it’s a party of business that has to pretend for 
electoral reasons that it’s not. Related to that, it’s getting harder to 
say what the party’s core beliefs are. Republicans have a coherent 
philosophy—loopy and often terrifying, yes, but coherent—which they use 
to fire up an impassioned base. The Democrats can’t risk getting their 
base too excited, lest it scare their funders.

That fundamental problem is worsened by Obama’s personality. Unlike 
Franklin Roosevelt, who in a marvelous 1936 speech announced that he 
welcomed the hatred of the rich, Obama craves their approval. Roosevelt 
emerged from the aristocracy and had the confidence to step on their 
toes now and then. Obama, born into modest circumstances, was groomed 
for power from an early age by elite institutions, and has little taste 
for toe-stomping. So instead of a wholesale renovation of the financial 
architecture in the style of the New Deal, we got the weak tea of 

I would prefer that Obama win the election—not so much because he’d be 
so much better than Romney on policy but because he will disappoint so 
many of his loyalists that it would be good for radical politics. 
Instead of people bellyaching about McCain’s awfulness, as they would 
have had he won in 2008, we got Occupy. Occupy faded, in part because 
attention was turned to the presidential campaign. I’m hoping that come 
November 7, we can turn away from big-time electoral politics again, 
which is where people who want more than minor transformations should be 
looking. Presidential politics, given the power of money and all our 
constitutional structures that nurture orthodoxy, is the natural terrain 
of the big boys. It would be much more fruitful to organize around 
specific issues, like single-payer health insurance and living-wage 
bills; to develop better institutions, like livelier unions and third 
and fourth parties; and if one must work in the electoral realm, to 
build from the bottom up, where the likes of us could actually make a 

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